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Former "desert county" sees green transformation in NW China

Source: Xinhua Updated: 2023-11-10

YINCHUAN -- After a bumper autumn harvest, Wang Xinfu piled up fresh corn cobs in his yard to dry, at which point he could peel them and sell the kernels. Though storing grain in this simple way is a common practice in many rural areas, for Wang, it is something to be grateful for.

Wang is a farmer from Ma'erzhuang Village in Yanchi County, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The village group he belongs to has a beautiful name -- "Liming," meaning "dawn" in Chinese.

Around 30 years ago, however, there was nothing beautiful about it.

Due to overgrazing and excessive digging for liquorice, the village had long suffered from desertification. Back then, the village was often engulfed by sand blown by gales.

"A severe sandstorm would bury houses overnight, and we could walk from the dunes to the rooftops," the 53-year-old recalled.

As the encroaching desert threatened to destroy farmland and bury villages, locals abandoned their homes and migrated to higher ground, leaving Liming Village desolate.

"In my 20s, I started selling vegetables in the city. It was tiring, but at the time, anything was better than living in the village," said Wang.

Liming is not the only village in the area to be plagued by sand. Yanchi County is on the southern edge of the Maowusu Desert, where the dry climate, prolonged drought and overgrazing have long posed problems for the locals. In the 1970s and 1980s, about 75 percent of the county's population lived in the desertified areas.

In the 1990s, the local government sought to tackle the problem, launching an ecological restoration project to control desertification and rehabilitate the natural vegetation.

It introduced measures such as aerial seeding, planting windbreak trees, making straw checkerboards, and growing drought-resistant shrubs and grass on the dunes. Through such efforts, it has gradually brought about 104,700 hectares of the desert under control.

The forest coverage of Yanchi County has grown from 5.6 percent in 1978 to 18.51 percent in 2022, while the grassland coverage jumped from 37.3 percent to 58.45 percent during the same period.

Another challenge that stood in the way of Yanchi County's ecological restoration was overgrazing. The county is known for sheep that produce tender mutton, but the local grazing practices were harming the environment.

Thanks to a water diversion project built in 1997, water from the Yellow River was redirected to farmland in Yanchi, allowing fodder to be grown on a large scale. In 2002, local authorities issued a grazing ban, encouraging farmers to use fodder instead.

As the ecological environment improved, Wang returned to his village. He is now raising over 600 sheep and has rented 26.67 hectares of irrigable land to grow corn and alfalfa.

In a good year, Wang's annual income can reach nearly 500,000 yuan (about 69,638 U.S. dollars). Even in the past two years, when breeding costs were high, he earned about 200,000 to 300,000 yuan a year.

In Yanchi's Dashuikeng Township, a rubbish dump has been turned into a public leisure area, with rows of apricot trees and a stream of reclaimed water from a nearby sewage treatment plant.

As an early mover in afforestation efforts, the town encouraged various market entities to take part in the project, providing donations and investing in eco-tourism, with over 70,000 apricot trees planted in the area.

To tackle water shortage, the town is also tapping the potential of recycled water. By upgrading the sewage treatment plant, they have brought about a great improvement in the quality of reclaimed water over the past three years. After natural purification in the river, it can be used to irrigate forests and green belts.

"This transformation has been no easy feat," said Dang Huibo, an official with the county water authority. "We will continue to conserve water resources and make full use of recycled water to protect this greenery."